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who, if they were called to an account for their unchristian treatment of their fellow-men-yea, and their fellow-christians too, could find no other or better refuge than in Paul's excuse “I verily thought with myself that I ought to do it."
“ And is not the excuse a sufficient one ?” you may well ask. “Are we not fully justified in doing that which we verily think with ourselves that we ought to do? Even on the supposition that our consciences are unenlightened, is it not our duty, being unaware of the fact, to obey their dictates ?” Doubtless it is; so long as the darkness continues, we must unquestionably find our way–we can do no otherwise—by the dim and deceptive light that we have. But let us not forget, that we must always be on the look-out for brighter light; and that though, in any particular instance, the plea, truly urged, that conscience led us wrong, will be a just and a sufficient one, yet that we may still remain chargeable with a prior criminality in having wilfully neglected to avail ourselves of the opportunities and the means of enlightening and rectifying conscience. It may be altogether the misfortune, and in no degree the fault, of the blind man, if he falls into the ditch, which, under the circumstances, he has done his very best to avoid ;-nevertheless, he may still remain punishable, and this very fall may be a part of his punishment, for that previous neglect of the health of the precious organ of sight in which his blindness originated.
“It is an undoubted truth,” says an able modern writer, * “that a conscience, however erroneous, obliges. But though it is true that a man must follow his conscience when made, the question returns, whether he may not have had a trifle to do with making it. It does not follow that, because a man must obey his conscience, he is blameless in so doing. To make him so, we must assume that, up to the time when he is called on to act in obedience to its authority, he had nothing to blame in the process by which he has come to have such a conscience.” “The erroneous conscience,” he adds in illustration, “of a Thug, a Mahometan fanatic, a Romish inquisitor, we cannot doubt, coerces them as much as a more enlightened conscience binds an apostle. Does it therefore leave them as blameless ? Is it not absurd to say so ??'
* Henry Rogers. See R. H. Grayson's Letters, Vol. II. p. 48.
The doctrine laid down in this passage is, on the whole, substantially true, but, I cannot but think, somewhat incorrectly expressed. He who obeys his conscience, whether that conscience be erroneous or enlightened, is, and must be,“ blameless in so doing.” If “an erroneous conscience,” as this writer justly contends, morally “coerces," then he who has it is not to be blamed for obeying its dictates. He may be justly blamed, nevertheless, and punished too, for having previously neglected, provided he enjoyed, the means of enlightening that conscience and correcting the errors of its view. I say “provided he enjoyed," for many, I hope and believe, have acted from mistaken views of duty, whose misfortune it has been, rather than their fault, that the light of truth has not shone more clearly and brightly on their minds.
It is quite possible that there may have been “Thugs," “Mahometan fanatics,” yea even“Romish inquisitors," who may seek and find shelter from final condemnation under the plea, sad and sorrowful but true, that, from their earliest years, clouds and darkness brooded over them, which it was not in their power to see through or disperse. If even a Paul, with his powerful mind,-a mind, too, on which the light of the law and the prophets had brightly shone, could be “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious," and yet "obtain mercy" on the ground that he had done it ignorantly in unbelief,” how many must there be, far less favoured than he, for whom the self-same plea will not be without avail !
Gladly would I cherish the hope, that, of the Christian persecutors without number who, in this 19th century of the Christian era, forgetting their Master's test of discipleship, are anathematizing, reviling, and calumniating each other, no small proportion will obtain forgiveness, solely because, like some at least of those who stood around our dying Master's cross, and who were the subjects of his all-embracing pity and loving prayers, they “know not what they do.”
Carefully, however, let us remember, my friends for this is a lesson which I am anxious to impress upon you—that though the plea of conscience, truly urged, is always a valid and sufficient one, and though it is not merely an excuse, but a reason, for any action, that we can honestly and deliberately say“I verily think with myself that I ought to do it,"—it is nevertheless possible that conscience herself may be mistaken, -that we may honestly think it our duty to do that, which, with added light, we should clearly see it to be our duty not to do; and that, consequently, there is a practical duty always incumbent upon us,-namely, to keep the eye of the soul always open for the access of
any fresh light that may beam upon it,—to direct its view to every quarter from which we have any reason to hope that such light may proceed, and to offer up unceasing prayers to Him who alone can effectually and fully enlighten our darkness, and who may possibly prove to us, as He not unfrequently has proved, that what we have hitherto deemed light is not so, but rather “darkness visible.”
To embrace the truth heartily, to defend it courageously, and to act upon it vigorously, so far as we think that we understand it, are, doubtless, sacred duties ; but it is not a duty, my friends, hastily to take it for granted that we do understand it perfectly,
—that no fresh light can be thrown upon it by finite minds,— much less that we have attained to that knowledge of it which belongs to the Infinite Mind alone. Even while we obey implicitly the dictates of conscience, let us bear carefully in mind that the human conscience is always fallible, and should therefore gladly and watchfully avail itself of any added light that reason and reflection may kindle within, or God shed down
upon it from above. Neither let us ever forget, that, while we ought to be strictly guided, in our own conduct, by our own views of truth and duty, other men have an equal right to be guided by theirs, and that it must remain for the All-wise, and for Him alone, to determine in the last resort how far we, or they, or any other of His fallible creatures, have attained, or fallen short of, that standard which exists in His perfect mind alone. We are all striving to assimilate our truth to God's truth,—to learn to think as He thinks on the most important of all subjects, our relations to Him and to each other. Is it not then the height of presumption for any one or more of us to assume, and to assert, that we have certainly succeeded, and that all those who differ from us have as certainly failed, in attaining this highest object of human aspiration ?
Methinks, if we would only remember each of us his own fallibility, we might amicably unite in the search after truth, rejoice to agree when our views might happen to coincide, agree to differ when we might find them at variance, and, after all our individual and joint researches, calmly, reverently, and lovingly await the final decision of Him who alone knoweth perfectly what the truth is, and who will shew us all, in His own due time, where we have been right, and where we have been wrong,—where we have missed of His truth in theory, and where we have erred from it in practice. In what words can I conclude better or more appropriately than those of the apostle in my textą“So then every one of us shall give an account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more." Amen.
INDIVIDUAL EFFORT THE HOPE OF THE WORLD.
BY REV. JOHN WRIGHT, B. A.
Psalm lxxxix. 46 :
“How long, Lord? Wilt Thou hide Thyself for ever?"
WHEN the Christian glances thoughtfully over the state of things in the world around us at the present moment, there must be produced in his mind a strong feeling of dissatisfaction, which may extend into something like despair of any real and permanent improvement. With all our boasted progress, our much vaunted civilization, our wide-spread profession of religion, there is not one single point in which our observations of the state of mankind can be altogether satisfactory. I much fear, indeed, that, taking into consideration all the advantages we now possess, remembering the great diffusion of all kinds of knowledge, the effect of the printing-press in multiplying to an unheard-of extent the means of intellectual cultivation and improvement, the degree in which even distant parts of the earth are linked together by the steam-engine and the telegraph, the access which every class of the community has to the refining influences of art and literature, the opportunities of religious culture, not only open to all, but pressing for attention, and seeking entrance into every heart,--I fear that, compared with these added opportunities and advantages, our moral and spiritual state is as low as that of any nation has been, at any period, compared with its opportunities and advantages.